Friday, December 25, 2009

The first raspberry in the English language?

Among the upper, educated classes, the French stories clearly circulated freely, but the development of a vernacular tradition was seriously hindered by what was for many years the depressed status of the English language. (I had vivid experience of this myself, years ago, while working on medieval London. I came across an early fourteenth-century case in the city courts which used French. An English clothes-dealer and his Welsh friend had been fined for causing a fracas in a brothel, whereupon they made a habit of standing at the roadside and neighing like horses whenever the aldermen rode by! Rebuked, they replied with ribald snorts of 'Trrphut! Trrphut!' (perhaps the first recorded raspberry?) — described as a rude 'English' expression!)

— Gwyn A. Williams, Excalibur: The Search for Arthur (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1994), 161

Surprising that no one has tried anything like this in Amherst. Our local government certainly has its vocal critics.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Captain of the "Exodus" Dies at Age 86

Some time ago, we noted the anniversary of the dramatic voyage of the "Exodus 1947," the ship carrying Holocaust survivors as illegal immigrants to Mandatory Palestine. The British seizure of the ship and forced relocation of the passengers to internment camps in Germany caused a scandal and helped to build international sentiment for Palestine Partition.

The Jerusalem Post reports the death of its captain, Ike Aranne, in Hadera. Born Yitzchak Aronowicz in what was then Gdansk, Aranne emigrated to Palestine at the age of 10. After sailing on various ships and then taking officer training in London, he returned in 1942 to Palestine and joined the Palyam, the new marine arm of the Palmach. The rarity of professional naval skills allowed him, despite relative lack of experience to assume his first command aboard the "Exodus."
The UK continued to hold the detainees in Cyprus until January 1949 when it formally recognized the State of Israel.

Aranne's daughter, Ella, told the AP that the experience remained a pivotal part of his life for years afterward.

"It was one of the most important things of his life. He wasn't a big storyteller, but he'd happily tell schoolchildren about it," she said.

"The Exodus influenced him and his friends deeply. Those were the days that defined them and as far as they were concerned defined the character of this country."

From 1993 until his death, he lived in a house built like a ship, with rooms in a row and a faux mast and huge windows providing a view of the Mediterranean.

He lived in the house alone since the death of his wife, Irene, in 2001.

Aranne's funeral is scheduled for Friday in northern Israel. He is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren, and a 2-year-old great-grandson.

Update: a sampling of additional coverage

• Margalit Fox, "Yitzhak Ahronovitch, Exodus Skipper in Defiant '47 Voyage of Jewish Refugees, Dies at 86, NY Times, 23 Dec.
• Naama Lanir, "Captain of refugee ship 'Exodus' dies," Ynet, 23 Dec.

• Eli Ashkenazi, "Captain of Exodus dies at 86," Haaretz, 24 Dec.

• Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, "Leon Uris 'Exodus' novel had nothing to do with reality, skipper said," Jerusalem Post, 26 Dec.

•"Yitzhak Aharonovitch: captain of the Holocaust survivor ship Exodus," Sunday Times, 30 Dec.

Introducing Another New Rubric: "quote unquote: bad history"

Every good phenomenon has to have its bad counterpart (like Captain Kirk's evil twin), and so it is only fair (and fun) to call attention to bad writing (mainly historical), as in the case of the good examples: as serendipity or whim may dictate.

A starter:

Neil Sheehan, whose study of a Vietnam policy-maker, A Bright and Shining Lie, won considerable acclaim, attempts to duplicate his success with a biography of Cold War missile engineer Bernard Schriever. Reviewer J. Peter Scoblic says it does not succeed, challenging the book's entire logic regarding the strategic and historical role of the ICBM. ("Did Missiles Win the Cold War? A Soulless New Book Gets the History Wrong," The New Republic, 2 Dec. 2009. Among other things, the review picks out "one of the book's more infelicitous sentences":
technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly
Ouch! None of my students this semester displayed such a misguided striving for effect (though there were other mistakes aplenty).

It's a target-rich environment out there.

Suggestions welcome here, too.

"dentist-chair bargaining" (introducing a new rubric: "quote unquote")

Introducing a new rubric, "quote unquote":

A miscellaneous selection of notable, quotable phrases (drawn mostly from writings about history, politics, or culture), new or old, as serendipity or whim may dictate.

Here's one for a start:
Bloom has summed up his approach to these situations as "dentist-chair bargaining"—in which the patient 'grabs the dentist by the balls and says, 'Now let's not hurt each other.'"
—from Noam Scheiber's portrait of the Obama administration's Ron Bloom, and his technique for tough negotiating in order to save jobs and industries in the face of management's efforts to cut losses by cutting jobs and closing factories: "Manufacturing Bloom: The proletarian schlub who might just save American industry," The New Republic, 2 Dec. 2009

Suggestions welcome.

[typos corrected]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Breaking news: Polish police locate stolen Auschwitz sign

AP 20 minutes ago: Police located the stolen Auschwitz gate sign in
northern Poland. Press conference scheduled for 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Auschwitz I Sign Theft Update

According to the Auschwitz administration and Reuters, Polish authorities are offering a reward of 115,000 PLN (about $ 39,000) "for information leading to the return of the metal sign" that hung over the gate to the camp and was stolen this week.
I am shocked and outraged by the theft of a recognizable symbol of Nazi cynicism and cruelty," President Lech Kaczynski said in a statement.

"Everything must be done to find and punish the offenders... and I appeal to all my compatriots who can help the law-enforcement authorities."
Authorities now believe that the motive was not antisemtism on the part of neo-Nazis or similar groups, and instead, a simple theft, though the specific motives behind the latter remain unclear.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Infamous "Arbeit macht frei" Sign Over Auschwitz Entrance Stolen Last Night

I had already been planning a new posting with updates on the status of historic preservation efforts at Auschwitz (including some recent good news), but events often overtake us.

The press office of the historic site and memorial announced that the infamous sign over the gate of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp disappeared in the middle of the night. According to a more detailed report from Haaretz and AP:
Polish police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said local authorities believed the sign was stolen between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., when museum guards noticed that it was missing and alerted the police.

Padlo added that the iron sign, which spanned a gate at the main entrance to the former Nazi death camp, was removed by being unscrewed on one side and pulled off on the other.

The daily Gazeta Wyborcza said on its website that the museum authorities had already installed a replica sign over the gate that had been used briefly a few years ago when the original was being repaired.

"This [theft] is very saddening," Gazeta Wyborcza quoted Jaroslaw Mensfelt, the museum's spokesman, as saying.

"The thieves either didn't know where they were or -- what's even worse -- they did know but that didn't prevent them from stealing."

the gate, through which visitors now enter the site:
1.1 million in 2008, when this photo was taken

Even without vandalism, the preservation of the historic resources of the site has posed a great challenge, for both the facilities and the thousands of artifacts—3,800 suitcases and 12,000 pots and pans, [accidentally omitted: and two tons of human hair,] for example—are in urgent need of conservation. At the start of the year, the Polish government, which has maintained the camp on its own, announced ambitious plans to create a foundation with an endowment of 120 million Euros, the interest of which could perpetually finance these tasks. Just this week, Germany committed to contributing half that amount .

Updates on this story and the overall struggle to preserve the site will follow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Coming Attractions: Worcester Conference on Historic Resources & House Museums

Most memorable quote from the conference: "The National Trust is not in the business of preserving buttprints!"

Full coverage to follow.

Press Release: West Cemetery Headstone Restoration First Phase Completed

9 December 2009

West Cemetery Headstone Restoration First Phase Completed

Members of the Amherst Historical Commission recently inspected and approved headstone restoration work completed by Monument Conservation Collaborative (MCC) of Norfolk, Connecticut. In three older sections of this ancient burying grounds, 269 headstones were repaired, righted, and reinstalled using $145,000 in Community Preservation Act funding. MCC has provided before and after images of each of the stones and descriptions of the repairs performed; some of these will be posted on the Historical Commission’s website.
West Cemetery, Amherst’s oldest, includes not only the Dickinson family plot, a frequent destination for Emily Dickinson devotees, but also an early African-American burying area, and the graves of some of Amherst’s earliest settlers. New signs have been designed and will be fabricated and installed to introduce visitors to the cemetery.

Irving Slavid, President of MCC, said “I have worked in historic cemeteries for over 15 years and the West cemetery in Amherst has more visitors than any cemetery we have worked in. Apart from local visitors, we also met people from all over the country and some from Europe. I remember an Italian couple making the journey to see Emily without speaking English. These travelers were devoted. People coming in by car or parking in town and walking through the cemetery, mostly all coming to visit Emily. Some stayed for a fair amount of time.”

In 2006, muralist David Fichter and local artists created the Amherst Community History Mural, which depicts historical Amherst figures along the back wall of the Amherst Carriage Shops overlooking the cemetery. Additional signs will describe the mural for visitors to the cemetery, and brochures describing the images and personalities depicted in the mural are available at the site.

Restoration of the cemetery is still incomplete. Additional CPA funding has been approved for repairs to the town tomb, ironwork around several family plots, and for additional landscape restoration. This year, older areas of the cemetery were re-seeded with native plants including lupine and forget-me-not, and were left unmowed, to begin to recreate the meadow that would have been characteristic of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These plantings are being installed with help from members of the Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity of the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, and generous contributions from the Hadley Garden Center.

Members of the Historical Commission expressed concern that a few of the restored headstones have already been the victims of new vandalism. Under normal conditions, repairs should last anywhere from twenty to fifty years. Members of the Historical Commission continue to discuss additional safety measures that might better protect the cemetery, the mural, and the headstones, both those already repaired and others that will be restored in an upcoming project.

For further information, please contact Jim Wald, Chair of the Amherst Historical Commission (jjwald at or Jonathan Tucker, Director of Planning (TuckerJ at

In the photo above: Jim Wald, Chairman of the Amherst Historical Commission and Jonathan Tucker, Director of Planning, examine the recently repaired headstone of Aaron Warner who died in 1774. The Aaron Warner House on West Street has been nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Coming Attractions: Updates on Historic Preservation Work

At this hectic time of year, there are many competing demands in the worlds of work, family, and civic affairs alike. However, we have made considerable progress in the latter area. Updates on the status of historic preservation initiatives will follow soon.

As a first installment, a separate posting will include a new release on Historical Commission projects, focusing on our work in the West Cemetery.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Coming Attractions: Hampshire Alumnus Read(s) from Tell-All Memoir; Buildings Still Standing

Coming Attractions:

Administrators and others legitimately concerned about the reputation of the College have been scared shitless at the publication of Richard Rushfield's new memoir of the wild and do-nothing Hampshire College culture of the old days.

Full disclosure: I knew and taught the author from his first through his last days here, so I am in a position to offer some sort of reality check.

A little report on the event (not a full-fledged book review—though I could identify some of the actual historical figures behind the literary characters for the reading public) will follow in due time.

In the meantime, I reproduce here the article from the Hampshire Gazette, which nicely summarizes the relation of author, text, and events:
At Hampshire, a student and his college come of age

By Daily Hampshire Gazette
Created 12/02/2009 - 05:00

"I write about a time when reckless irresponsibility ceased to be an acceptable lifestyle, and American culture became more serious, self-conscious and self-absorbed," writes Hampshire College graduate Richard Rushfield in his new book, "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s" (Gotham Books).

Think about that statement for a few minutes, and you gradually, grudgingly, realize that this man has a wicked sense of humor. He skewers every person and every philosophy he encountered during his undergraduate years at Hampshire College (1986-'91), but he is also unsparing in his self-criticism. The resulting story is a coming-of-age tale for both the experimental college and for one particularly insecure, observant youth.

Rushfield, who lives in Venice, Calif., will read from his memoir Monday at his alma mater. It's a book that combines the journalistic accuracy and sense of place in Tracy Kidder's non-fictional "Hometown" with the drug-crazed, neurotic characters and adventures in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." #

Young Rushfield came to the Pioneer Valley from that other "valley" - southern California. In his book, he describes Hampshire College as "a self-conscious experiment in education by the four major schools located in the idyllic western Massachusetts wilderness of the Pioneer Valley ¿ a laboratory free of the constraints of the established schools ¿ with the boldness to traipse down the paths its stodgy neighbors feared to tread." He claims that by the time he started school there, the experiment had turned into a nightmare of loosely drifting "misfits and malcontents from around the globe."

He also admits that his prime reason for attending the school was the promise of a single room in the dormitory.

Reality check

Rushfield thought Hampshire would be similar to his former Los Angeles high school ¿ "a liberally oriented school cloistered from reality" where he hung with a crowd he describes as "revival-movie-going, Cole Porter-reciting, self-styled intelligentsia ¿"

But, once on campus, he felt sorely out of place. A sadistic dorm supervisor scorned him for being a "first-year"; a non-politically-correct essay earned him revulsion on his first day in the class "From Mark Twain to Miami Vice: Images of the American Male in Popular Culture"; he felt mocked by campus hippies for his inexperience with women and his rejection of marijuana.

"Pot was to Hampshire College what basketball was to Notre Dame, calculus to MIT. ¿ In the following years, never would I pass a day without being asked for or offered marijuana," he writes. "Perhaps the biggest handicap I had brought to Hampshire, the thing that made me totally unsuited to survive in this ecosystem, was my aversion to marijuana."

Eventually, Rushfield found friends who shared his taste in alcohol, pills and cocaine. His nihilistic tendencies, just budding when he defaced all the doors in his dorm and denied it in front of 10 witnesses, were brought to fruition at his next residence. He moved in with a group of good hearted, self-destructive misfits called "The Supreme Dicks."

The Dicks liked to bother other people by showing up uninvited at gatherings and playing loud sounds on electric instruments. They showed contempt for fellow students by organizing events meant to shock and outrage, such as a "spermathon" for South Africa. (Don't ask: read page 110.) The Dicks had a dark secret that was eventually uncovered by Rushfield: a suicide for which many people considered the Dicks responsible.

After two years of wild exploits and missed classes, the Dicks were being disbanded and Rushfield was close to expulsion. He did remain and went on to graduate with a degree in art history, mostly by attending classes at Smith and Amherst colleges. By graduation time, he had become more comfortable around the opposite sex and was off the radar screen of campus security.

Rushfield's memoir paints an unflattering view of life at Hampshire College in the late '80s. Post-epilogue, after Rushfield has sworn that the incidents in the book are essentially true, he offers this thanks to the college: "For all the rocky miles we've been down, you provided me the most memorable years of my life, years that made me who I am today, and without them, there would have been no memoir."

It is easy to picture him saying this with a bit of a sneer on his face.

Richard Rushfield will talk about his memoir Monday at 7 p.m. in the main lecture hall of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus.
As noted, a further report to follow. Or, to cite the retro style favored by the speaker: Be there, Aloha.

9 December 1917: General Allenby Captures Jerusalem

The Ottomans surrender Jerusalem to British forces, December 1917. It was a most welcome development for the Entente in the wake of the disasters of Passchendaele and Caporetto. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George had asked General Allenby to "to take Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the nation." Allenby famously entered via the Jaffa Gate on foot, a gesture generally described as one of deference to Jesus, who had ridden a donkey, but in fact also a political one intended as (in Conor Cruise O'Brien's words) "a snub to the Kaiser, who had entered the Holy City nineteen years before, mounted on a white horse, under a triumphal arch."

In November, the government had issued the Balfour Declaration, in which it announced that it viewed "with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people," a charge that became part of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine assigned to Great Britain in 1920.

The Great War lent an impetus to both Arab and Jewish national liberation movements, which some members of each regarded as sympathetic and compatible. Although much contemporary discussion either emphasizes or merely assumes monolithic Arab hostility to the Declaration, Matthias Küntzel reminded us in his recent popular book that this was not always the case, citing in particular examples from the Egyptian elite who welcomed Zionism as a force for rejuvenating the region. As late as 1925, "Egyptian Interior Minister Ismail Sidqi took action against a group of Palestinians protesting against the Balfour Declaration in Cairo. He was at the time on his way to Jerusalem to take part in the opening of the first Hebrew university." [1]

The other point that has been lost to collective memory is Christian hostility to the British victory: The Vatican, for example, regarded Jerusalem as the "patrimony of Christ." As Richard Rubenstein observes, "Over the centuries the Christian churches, both Orthodox and Latin, had achieved a modus vivendi concerning Palestine with the Ottoman Empire. The conquest of Palestine by Protestant England, which had made a qualified promise to the Jews of a 'national home,' did not sit well in Rome." [2] More generally, his essay on the "witness people idea"—namely, that the Jews are a crucial but ambivalent sign in Christian thought—goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly inexplicable modern western obsession (positive or negative) with the Jewish state without recourse to the sometimes misleading or tautological explanation of antisemitism.
[1]Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (NY: Telos Press, 2007), 6.
[2] "The Witness-People Myth, Israel, and Anti-Zionism in the Western World," in Michael Berenbaum, ed., Not Your Father's Antisemitism: Hatred of Jews in the Twenty-First Century (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008), 293-327; here 301-2.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"one of the most remote places" on earth

Cultural comparisons: 2

The speculative run-up to President Obama's policy speech on Afghanistan tonight has, predictably, generated a lot of vaporing. Several weeks ago, I was struck by reference to the country on an NPR report as "one of the most remote places on earth" (NPR usually reserves that phrase—just try googling it—for Antarctica, or occasionally some exotic isle.)

Really? By what standard? One would think that a country that is already home to some 50,000 US troops, with 30,000 more now on the way would hardly be remote in the sense of hard to get to. Indeed, what with the influx of troops, support personnel, and press these days, it's probably one of the easier places in the region to get to. Just try visiting the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan, or for that matter, Canada's Northwest Territories.

And "remote," in the sense of distance?

Isn't this all relative anyway? I'm sure that, to the people of Afghanistan, the United States qualifies as "one of the most remote places on earth," in more regards than one.

I am also reminded of the old joke told by and about refugees from Nazism:
Early 1930s: two acquaintances trying desperately to leave Germany run into each other at the emigration office.

First émigré: Where are you going?
Second émigré: Shanghai.
First émigré: What, so far?!
Second émigré: Far—from where?

"one of the world's great religions"

Cultural comparisons: 1

In his much-awaited Afghanistan speech tonight, President Obama referred to Islam as "one of the world's great religions."

I of course agree wholeheartedly (unlike the Swiss).

I knew exactly what he meant: he was referring to its number of adherents, its contributions to literature and the arts, its role as a pillar of western and world civilization (indeed, I have always taught my students to understand that Islam was part of the shaping of the West, for example, through its leading role in philosophy and science as well as theology).

Still, it made me wonder.

For one thing, it was a kind of political boilerplate and pandering, a throw-away line. (In fact, I was almost reminded—this dates me—of cadaverous deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen's 1968 presidential campaign. A spoof video had him say, in every little town, that this was the greatest place in America, his favorite place in America.)

For another, what else could President Obama have said? Let's extrapolate.

What reaction would Zoroastrianism—after all, found in the strategically crucial countries of Iran, India, and Pakistan—provoke? "One of the world's pretty decent second-tier religions"? (sort of like a college football team that's good but not on a par with the Big Ten? a baseball farm club?). Actually, I'd go with: "one of the world's oldest religions": true and safe, makes no qualitative or comparative judgment. Dodged a bullet there.

And wicca? Anthropologically and scientifically, one cannot of course differentiate between it and the established religions. Sorry to have to say that to traditionalists (differentiating historically is a different matter). For that reason, among others, it stands on a footing of equality at the Spiritual Life Center at neighboring Mount Holyoke College (to cite one example) along with the expected eastern and western faiths. But addressing wicca at all would be politically very unpopular. The wingnuts, after all, don't even want to believe that the President is a natural-born American citizen. They'd have a field day with this. Fortunately, there are no wiccan constituencies or crises on the horizon. Save for contingency plan, review later.

And what about cases in which multiple religions are involved? The "Middle East conflict" is, thank God (figure of speech), a no-brainer: "three of the great world religions," "three of the world's greatest religions," "the three great monotheistic religions," etc. Home free. Everyone is happy (well, except for the ones who are killing one another over their great religions).

But what if a President had to take a tough stand on events in Sudan? (don't hold your breath) Today, of course, the chief issue is the genocide in Darfur, in which Muslims are killing Muslims. You can stick with the original formula: now a doubly tragic conflict between members of "one of the world's great religions." It's a multi-purpose phrase.

But in earlier decades, the focus was on the war between the Arab and Muslim north and what was referred to as—it became a total stock phrase among journalists: just try googling it (I got about 5000 hits for that exact phrase and wish I owned the copyright. Bizarro)—"the largely Christian and animist south." Tough one. What does one say there: a "tragic conflict" (all conflicts nowadays are of course tragic; that almost goes without saying) involving "'two of the world's great religions' and, um, . . . what we used to refer to as a 'primitive religious belief,' not understanding that the term itself reflected a Eurocentric bias and could not do justice to its rich and complex vision of the interplay between living humans, ancestors, and nature"? Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Fortunately, that one's largely behind us now anyway. Save for the files and hope for the best.

It must be hard to be President. I guess that's why he has speech-writers and vetters of speeches. Can't be too careful what you say nowadays (as Hillary and her staff evidently have yet to learn).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Swiss Pleas: Minaret-y Rights

It was dismaying to see a demagogic and bigoted proposal win out in Switzerland, as 57% of voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets.

Harry's Place offers an early take on this, including an analysis of the shockingly bigoted message behind some of the pro-referendum posters, which depicted, among other things, a veiled woman and a forest of minarets covering the Swiss flag; white sheep on a Swiss flag kicking out a black sheep; and black ravens tearing apart a map of Switzerland:
Although the vote no doubt reflects fears of extremism to some extent, it is also quite obviously also intended to be a “rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture”. There is nothing intrinsically offensive about mosque architecture. Minarets do not symbolise the politics of Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . .
This is a moment of disgrace for Switzerland. As the opposition campaign points out, this is the sort of attack on religious minorities, on the principle of freedom of religious expression – quite innocuous, architectural expression – that you would expect to see in a totalitarian state.
It concludes, "Ordinary Swiss Muslims are paying the price of this battle between extremists."

LGF puts it even more succinctly: "Switzerland, the country that let everyone else in Europe do their fighting for them in World War II and turned Jews over to the Nazis to save their own skins, has now banned minarets."

What a disgrace—and a warning.

Coming not so long after Thanksgiving, the vote—and indeed, the mere fact that such a referendum cold end up on the ballot— reminds me of what I'm thankful for: a Bill of Rights, to start with.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

29 November 1947: UN Votes for Palestine Partition—and today??

Will the "one-state solution" eclipse the two-state solution that has never materialized?

Two weeks ago, I came across the following story:
Exclusive:The Secret Palestinian Plan
Posted By Reena Ninan On November 14, 2009 @ 12:47 PM

A senior Palestinian official tells Fox News in the next few weeks the Palestinian Authority is planning to call for Palestinian statehood through a UN resolution-- a similar maneuver to that by which Israel was created. . . .

I have to confess that my first reaction was a flippant one:

Uh, Dudes! It already happened, like . . . 60 years ago!

November 29, 1947

The General Assembly, Having met in special session at the request of the mandatory Power to constitute and instruct a Special Committee to prepare for the consideration of the question of the future Government of Palestine at the second regular session;
. . . . . . . .
Considers that the present situation in Palestine is one which is likely to impair the general welfare and friendly relations among nations;

Takes note of the declaration by the mandatory Power that it plans to complete its evacuation of Palestine by l August 1948;

Recommends to the United Kingdom, as the mandatory Power for Palestine, and to all other Members of the United Nations the adoption and implementation, with regard to the future Government of Palestine, of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union set out below
. . . . . . . . . .
Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948.
Did you, uh, miss something (like, you know, . . . a historic opportunity)?

Of course, it is a serious matter, especially given the current stalemate in peace talks and resultant posturing and grandstanding on both sides.

The "next few weeks" means by now, well: now, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of the Partition vote. I therefore waited to post about it till today (this is, after all, a blog devoted primarily to history and its uses and abuses).

An astute progressive colleague recently remarked to me that this new move for a one-state solution might well become the cause célèbre on college campuses, eclipsing, for example, the BDS movements (whose failure to achieve any concrete results is by now well known). She also noted that the Palestinian strategy was quite clever.

I agree: but too clever by half (as the saying goes).

The report continued:
Both Palestinians and some Israelis believe that there is growing support in the international community for such a measure.

Asked to comment on the plan, an American official said that such a UN resolution, while not a cure-all, could be expanded upon eventually. Still, he added: "It's a measure that would make you feel good for five minutes. Then what?"

Palestinian officials predict the US would veto a UN resolution. If the resolution fails, senior Palestinian officials are considering completely dissolving the Palestinian Authority. That would leave the burden of running the West Bank to Israel--a policy that the Israeli government would be fearful of.

US tax payers pay $3 billion to aid Israel a year. If Palestinians hand the keys over to the Israelis more money will likely be needed to facilitate the occupation. The senior Palestinian official added once the Palestinian Authority is dismantled, Palestinians will push for a 'one state solution'-- ultimately making Israel no longer a Jewish state.
There's the rub. Too clever by half: yes, it is clever, but the tragedy is that all the cleverness is being applied to plans to put Israel in a box and force it to concede (to that extent, the logic is the same as that of the BDS movement), and that's a shame. Making the world "feel good for five minutes" and attempting to extort a solution (though one has to know, in one's heart of hearts, that the prospects of success are minimal at best) pretty much sums things up: a desperate and self-serving but perversely self-defeating effort.

I said above: desperate. Indeed, I perfectly understand the frustrations of both sides. Palestinians feel that they are the victims of history and great-power decisions in the twentieth century. Now confronting a regional superpower that holds all the military and political cards, they feel they have conceded about as much as they can, yet have very little to show for it. The more the leadership negotiates without reaching peace, which, for them, means attaining statehood, and sooner rather than later, and on some very specific terms (more on that below)—especially when they long could not claim, by their standards, to have achieved even the paltry goal of improved conditions of daily life in a world of occupation, barriers, and checkpoints—the more it delegitimizes itself in the eyes of its own population. Israelis, for their part, feel not just politically, but existentially threatened. They see themselves confronting not just a few million subjugated Palestinians with limited military means at their disposal, but a whole Arab and Islamic alliance that refuses, more than 60 years after the fact, to recognize their presence, their legitimacy, and their permanence. They see that their every offer of compromise has historically been rejected as not enough. When the Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the character of their state as a Jewish one (a principle affirmed in the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate, and the UN Partition resolution), and when they see an insistence on an absolute right of return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants (which would of course eliminate the Jewish character of the state), they see a rejection of their homeland, as such, and a plan to destroy it in stages. Each side—above and beyond the objective merits of the case—feels that it has been negotiating in good faith but that the other side has not held up its end of the bargain. It's all perfectly understandable. Each side in that sense is subjectively "right" in its own way.

There are many problems with a one-state solution today versus, say, in 1926 or 1936 or 1946— the main one being the disingenuousness or callousness of most of its advocates. Back then, the advocates were determined idealists or resigned realists. Today, they are naïfs or cynical manipulators. The sole purpose of this new one-state proposal is therefore to secure by coercion what negotiation could not attain.

Let us, then, get down to basics. The single overriding and insuperable problem, as I have said earlier, can be reduced to one paradoxical but simple truth: the conditions that would make the one-state solution possible would render it unnecessary. That is: if the two sides had enough trust to believe that they could actually share a single state without the one dominating the other (as a few humane thinkers on both sides had earlier suggested), then they would long ago have been able to agree on partition of the land into two states in which each people could feel secure and proud under its own sovereignty. If they cannot agree to live separately in peace, how could they possibly agree to live together? It's that simple. QED.

Ergo, proposals for "one state" are disingenuous at best.

The Palestinian ideal of the "one-state solution" is in certain fundamental aspects qualitatively no different from the right-wing Israeli settler ideal of permanent occupation: the idea that one people can attain its maximalist goals by compulsion and without conceding anything, and that the other will nonetheless be satisfied without full sovereignty. It is a perverse fantasy.

Would the world not be better off if all that cleverness were applied to the positive goal of reaching a mutually agreed upon solution? That, after all, is the goal of peace: something that the two sides can reach, together, out of the recognition of mutual necessity, and interest. Not love, not abstract ideals, but interest. In that sense, it's like medieval and early modern conceptions of marriage. We believe that marriage springs from love. Earlier ages believed marriage was about social and economic alliances, and that romantic passion was fickle, destabilizing, and short-lived—in short, no basis for what we nowadays call a "permanent relationship" (in political terms, substitute: "permanent settlement"). For them, love therefore followed rather than preceded marriage. I am hardly suggesting that we revert to medieval norms in this or anything else (though the Middle Ages could still teach us a few things about many things). Still, the insight that stable political relationships are built on recognition or reconciliation of interests rather than tenderheartedness and mere desire (what was Lord Palmerston's classic phrase about Britain's permanent interests?) can stand us in good stead here. Or, as Israeli security scholar Yehoshafat Yarkabi has written, "It is not the change of images . . . which will lead to peace, but peace which will lead to the change of images."

As it happens, two pro-peace sources that have been on the blogroll of this site since its inception recently and coincidentally came out with proposed solutions. Both in effect spell out terms for the equivalent of a successful negotiated marriage.

The first is from IPCRI—the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information—run by Israeli Gershon Baskin and Palestinian Hanna Siniora. It is the oldest and boldest of the truly collaborative undertakings between the two peoples, and it recently won an award as one of the world's best NGOs. Baskin suggests:
Obama said in Cairo that resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict is a US national strategic interest. It is in fact an international strategic interest. As such, it cannot be left to the veto of the Israelis and the Palestinians any longer. There is no chance that the Israelis and the Palestinians will reach any bilateral negotiated agreement, therefore it is not only a waste of time and precious energy on negotiating the negotiations, it is a waste of time to make efforts to bring the two parties to the table right now. They have serious homework to do before coming to the table, as do the leaders of the Quartet.

THE QUARTET, led by the US should:

1. Give the parties six months to present their own versions of a peace treaty taking into account all of the issues, needs, interests, threat perceptions and means for dealing with them.

2. Spend three months integrating the two treaties into the Quartet parameters. If there is no plan from one or both parties, the Quartet will still draw up its own plan.

3. An additional six months will be spent negotiating on the means to implement the plan. Differences between the parties will be resolved through bridging proposals put on the table by the Quartet.

4. The Quartet will make preparations for the creation of an international force led by the US (without US troops) containing a military, a policing and a civilian monitoring force (under the command of a US general) and with a US administration, with the participation of EU troops, Russians and others. The force will be stationed in the Palestinian state and will facilitate the Israeli withdrawal from Palestine and provide security guarantees for both states. Security can no longer be entrusted to bilateral arrangements as it was in the past. The security discourse must be advanced from the idea that Palestinians are providing security to Israel. This is rejected by both sides. The new discourse must be one of mutual security. There will be no security unless both sides feel secure from the threats of the other.

5. Even after Israeli withdrawal, there is a possibility that there will remain a law- abiding Jewish minority in the Palestinian state and this is a good development. The rights and treatment of the national minorities in each state should be linked to each other.

6. A UN Security Council resolution detailing the parameters of peace, of Palestinian and Israeli statehood and full Palestinian membership in the UN comes in at this stage.

7. The next Palestinian elections are held for the government of the state of Palestine and not for the Palestinian Authority.

8. The West Bank-Gaza link (tunnel, bridge, sunken road or a combination) will be constructed at this stage - as soon as possible and brought to about one kilometer of Gaza until there is a change in the political situation in Gaza. In any event, the peace treaty is based on the West Bank and Gaza, and will apply to Gaza as soon as possible.

9. The economic siege on Gaza must end because it is empowering Hamas and weakening the allies of peace.

There are many more details which must be included, but the space for this article is far too limited for that.
The other is from an indivdual and may appear equally quixotic, though in different ways. Palestinian-American comic and jouralist Ray Hanania has decided to run for President of the Palestinian Authority, and proposes the following peace plan:
1. I support two-states, one Israel and one Palestine. As far as I am concerned, I can recognize Israel's "Jewish" character and Israelis should recognize Palestine's "non-Jewish" character.

2. I oppose violence of any kind from and by anyone. I reject Hamas' participation in any Palestinian government without first agreeing to surrender all arms and to accept two-states as a "final" peace agreement. But I also reject allowing Israeli settlers to carry any weapons and believe Israelis must impose the same restrictions on them.

3. I can support some settlements remaining - given the reality of 42 years of time passing - in a dunam-for-dunam land exchange. If Ariel is 500 dunams with a lifeline from Israel, then Israel gives Palestine 500 dunams in exchange.

4. Jerusalem should be a shared city and Palestinians should have an official presence in East Jerusalem. The Old City should be shared by both permitting open access to the city to all with a joint Palestinian-Israeli police presence.

5. Palestinian refugees would give up their demand to return to pre-1948 homes and lands lost during the conflict with Israel. Instead, some could apply for family reunification through Israel and the remainder would be compensated through a fund created and maintained by the United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.

6. I also think Israelis should find it in their hearts to show compassion and offer their apologies to Palestinians for the conflict.

7. I support creation of a similar fund to compensate those Jews from Arab lands who lost their homes and lands, too, when they fled.

8. I think the Wall should be torn down, or relocated to the new borders. I have no problem separating the two nations for a short duration to help rebuild confidence between our two people.

9. All political parties, Palestinian and Israelis, should eliminate languages denying each other's existence, and all maps should be reprinted so that Israeli maps finally show Palestine and Palestinian maps finally show Israel.

10. A subway system should be built linking the West Bank portion of the Palestine state to the Gaza Strip portion of the Palestine State. Palestine should be permitted to build a seaport access to strengthen its industry, and an airport to permit flights and too and from the Arab and Israeli world.

11. I would urge the Arab World to renew their offer to normalize relations with Israel if Israel agrees to support the creation of a Palestinian State.

12. And I would ask both countries to establish embassies in each other's country to address other problems.

13. While non-Jewish Palestinians would continue to live in Israel as citizens, Jews who wish to live in settlements surrendered by Israel could become Palestinian citizens and they should be recognized and treated equally.

14. If Jews want to live in Hebron, they should be allowed to live in Hebron and should be protected, just as non-Jews. In fact, for every Jewish individual seeking to live in Palestine, a Palestinian should be permitted to live in Israel. In fact, major Palestinian populations in Israel could be annexed into Palestine (like settlements).

15. Another concept is to have non-Jews living in Israel continue to live there but only vote in Palestinian elections, while Jews living in Palestine would only vote in Israeli elections. A special citizenship protection committee could be created to explore how to protect the rights of minorities in each state.

16. Israel and Palestine should create joint-governing and security agencies working with the United States to monitor the peace, and establish an agency to pursue criminal acts of violence.
To be sure, each proposal will provoke the ire of some on the "right" and "left" of each side, but that's in the nature of the thing. If compromise were easy, it would be neither painful nor difficult. (a simple truth, one would think) If each proposal is a fantasy of some sort, at least it is a humane rather than a cynical and malicious one. Each takes sincerely the interests and concerns of both sides. Each addresses the most sensitive and persistent issues, such as refugees and minority rights. Each attempts, by bold measures, to break the logjam.

Coincidentally writing today, journalist and peace proponent Ami Isseroff is as clear-eyed as Baskin and therefore sees the same obstacles, but he draws more pessimistic conclusions. He worries that we are indeed the victims of a hopeless fantasy, namely, "the mythical peace that is just beyond reach":
The conventional wisdom in much of the world holds that there is an Israeli-Arab peace settlement that is just out of reach - so near yet so far, frustrated only by tactical accidents. We all know what the peace settlement must look like, says the myth. If only Israel wasn't so stubborn about building in Jerusalem or (under Ehud Olmert) not negotiating at all about Jerusalem, there could be peace in a week. But somehow peace, like the lost tribes of Israel in the medieval Jewish myth, remains beyond reach, on the other side of the Sambatyon river . . .
What does the peace settlement look like? We all know, what the peace settlement would look like, don't we? It would look like the Clinton Bridging Proposals, or it would look like the Geneva Accord, or it might even look like the reasonable proposal of Palestinian-American comedian Ray Hanania.
The myth, as he explains it, rests on a false assumption. All of the aforementioned bridging proposals posit: Palestinian relinquishment of the absolute right of return of all refugees and descendants; Israeli control over "some parts of Jerusalem beyond the 1949 armistice line"; each side's willingness to recognize the other's state as a national home. "The depressing fact is that all the polls of Palestinians and all the statements of the leaders and all the documents of the PLO and the Fatah have been fairly consistent in giving negative replies to all the issues." "The one ray of hope," he continues, is the belief that some surveys show popular Palestinian support for greater compromises. He goes on to show that the polls have been grossly misinterpreted because that supposed willingness is predicated on Israel's willingness to accept an absolute Palestinian right of return, which is a non-starter for the Jewish state.

He raises serious concerns. To read his article should be a salutary but sobering experience for expert and casual commentator alike: like being awakened from an edenic dream of peace by a bucket of cold water on the face. In other words, we may be exactly where we were last night, and we suddenly feel very uncomfortable. Still . . .

Baskin's proposal on the surface resembles the sorts of imposed solutions that have increasingly been proposed from outside, but what it really imposes is not a solution as much as a deadline. In this plan, unlike the proposed Palestinian one-state campaign, statehood follows rather than precedes negotiation. The plan requires the two parties to determine their own positions and then negotiate in good faith according to a timetable. It does not allow the parties to walk away from the table or fail to fulfill their obligations, as has happened in the past. Hanania's proposal addresses Isseroff's concerns but has no mechanism for achieving the required Palestinian consensus (unless he wins the election; and maybe not even then. Then again, no plan or platform, Palestinian or Israeli, comes with a guaranteed consensus in all its details, even if its chief advocate wins a national election). Still, no one put these ideas forward as policy before. Why not put them to the test of public discussion? Then we will truly know whether to be pessimistic.

Dreams? Perhaps. But the most pessimistic prospect is a situation in which no one is even trying to come up with new ideas. And even if the debate just grinds the proposals down, leaving behind a new and hardened pessimism, that is infinitely preferable to a feeble optimism that will crumble under the inevitable pressure of reality.

* * *


30 November: more on the Hanania plan on settler/refugee exchange (Burston in Haaretz)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Seasonal Transitions in the Garden

It has been, for the most part, a notably mild fall—so mild, in fact, that one of the antique rose varieties is still reblooming. The marvelously persistent Rose de Rescht (of Iranian origin) was managing to put out several new blooms a week all month. One small one opened even on Thanksgiving Day (here a shot of another blossom, only a bit earlier)

Rose de Rescht

Nonetheless, it is clear not only that autumn is here, but that winter is coming. Most of the leaves fell off the trees by Halloween. Many of us have taken advantage of the mild temperatures to stretch out the leaf clean-up task (between the occasional heavy rains, that is). While engaged in such activity last weekend, I came across another sure sign of fall: this large but austere cocoon

Cecropia utopia

The four-inch cocoon will be the winter resting place of my favorite moth, the Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia; also known as the Robin Moth), one of the giant American wild silk moths (the others are the Luna and the Polyphemus, my other two favorites; all three thus have appealingly classical names). In fact, the Cecropia happens to be the largest moth found in the US.

By next spring, the humble gray cocoon will have yielded a colorful and truly spectacular creature:

Many, over the ages, have presumed to draw moral or spiritual lessons from the metamorphosis of the moths and butterflies from egg to adult (here, a particularly inane creationist variant). It would be nice to think that, after a cold, hard winter, we could, with no active effort of our own, emerge so miraculously transformed. On the other hand, all that growth takes place in a hidden space, and the results, once revealed, do not last long. The beautiful adult that emerges does not feed and lives for only about a week. Interesting that almost no one ever stops to reflect on that sober truth.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Conference on "Progress & Peril of Historic Sites"

When the public thinks of imperiled historic sites, it probably has in mind the venerable urban structure facing the wrecking ball or the battlefield contending with sprawl and encroachment. Perhaps a stately mansion has fallen on hard times: notably, Edith Wharton's The Mount, caught in a scissors between colossally poor budgetary choices and general hard times last year. Most recently, we learned of the crisis at the far less well-known Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson, which Historic Hudson Valley was reputedly thinking of selling.

What the public perhaps does not understand is that virtually every historic site is facing hard times and harder choices. The small ones are most in jeopardy: under-resourced to begin with, many have to contend with unsustainable business models, soaring costs for upkeep, inadequate display and storage facilities for incoherent collections, and presentation models and missions more suited to the era of the Model T and Life magazine than Facebook and the mashup.

Preservation professionals have in recent years heatedly debated the very need for our profusion of small house museums. Has the genre outlived its purpose? And even if not, do we really need so many of them? Could not their limited resources be put to better use? Would the few genuinely significant articles in their collections not be better sold off or distributed to institutions that know how to conserve, study, and present them to larger audiences? It comes to resemble the debates about social history a generation or more ago: what is the real benefit, for either the researcher or the rare reader, of yet another study of a single English village?

The Worcester Historical Museum and Historic New England are sponsoring a conference to deal with precisely these issues next week:
Can You Change In Time? Progress & Peril of Historic Sites

A one-day conference
Click here for the agenda.
December 3, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009 9 to 5 P.M.
at Trinity Lutheran Church,
73 Lancaster Street, Worcester, MA 01609

The state of historic house museums and sites has been a topic of increasing concern to professionals, volunteers, and community leaders for nearly a decade. Small budgets impacted by difficult financial times, level or diminishing visitation, and confusing stories herald the need for change — of message or mission. Is it time to change? Is there an alternative for your historic house/site?
Our own local organizations are quite aware of the challenge and determined to act sooner rather than later. For example, the Amherst Historical Society & History Museum, whose board I recently joined, held its own public-input and visioning session already at the end of the spring. Representatives of the major sites in Amherst and Northampton will be making presentations in Worcester. I'll be there just in order to watch and learn. I hope to report back here in the near future.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving again.

Because I put up a fairly lengthy post last year on the "first Thanksgiving" and its history and foodways, I'll take a somewhat different tack here.

It is a interesting holiday this year in particular because my co-teacher Laura Wenk and I, in our course on "learning how to think and teach like a historian," have included a unit on the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, built around The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James and Patricia Scott Deetz. Student background knowledge appears to be about what one would expect: a general conviction that history idealized and transfigured the Pilgrims, coupled with heightened sensibility to the wrongs done to Native Americans; belief in the overwhelming influence of religion in that day: beyond that, little if any specific knowledge in most cases.

Both the Deetzes' book and Nathaniel Philbrick's more recent and much more popular (indeed, bestselling) Mayflower (from which we assigned an excerpt) make the key point that the typical vision of Colonial New England begins with the Pilgrims and then commences again only on the eve of the Revolution, with nothing much in between. For Philbrick,
the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags maintained more than fifty years of peace and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the study we already know, it becomes the story we need to know (p. xii)
For the Deetzes,
While we use the 'first Thanksgiving' as our point of departure, and consider the myths, familiar to millions of Americans. that have emerged concerning the 'Pilgrims,' we then look back to the events that led up to the settlement of Plymouth Colony and, more significantly, the years following that event through 1691, providing glimpses of life in the colony. These years are particularly important because to large numbers of people the early settlers sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, had a big dinner the following fall, and disappeared. In truth, Plymouth Colony has an ongoing story that is worth recounting in all its colorful detail, enlivened and expanded by contemporary archaeology, cultural research, and living history. (p. xv)
Philbrick draws upon a panoply of primary and secondary textual sources to craft a highly engaging narrative with a strong political lesson, but we chose the Deetzes' book because its use of a wider variety of source material—including court records, probate inventories, architectural and archaeological evidence, folkways and material culture—as well as its analysis of the challenges and techniques of museological portrayal at Plimoth Plantation, seemed ideally suited to the methodological concerns of the course. As a case study of social and cultural history in an early modern rural setting, it moreover forms a perfect complement to our earlier explorations of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale and Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre.

We've already given the students a rundown on some features of the original feast: venison and probably waterfowl but no turkey; lots of beer and gunfire. The feast marked a traditional English harvest festival and was in no sense a special day of thanksgiving; indeed, the original one-paragraph account does not even mention prayer. We've asked the students to discuss the first reading assignment when they visit their families for the holiday this week.

It should be interesting, and I hope to report later on some of the results.

In the meantime, a few links to Thanksgiving-related topics:

• Art Buchwald's classic attempt to explain Thanksgiving (le Jour de Merci Donnant) to the French: "Le Grande Thanksgiving"

• Mark Knoller, "History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon" (from CBS)

Proof that birds descended from dinosaurs (including the analysis of a roast turkey; from YouTube)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You've Got (Hate) Mail! (and why this drivel isn't as far from mainstream discourse as you might hope)

I was trying to recall whether this is the first occasion on which I have received anonymous hate mail. Now that I stop to think about it, I guess I have, on a couple of occasions (obviously, I must not have paid it much attention), and it was standard neo-Nazi stuff.

This item reached me in late September, but more pressing matters kept me from posting about it. At any rate, I walked into the main office one day and found only one item in my mailbox. The battered and opened envelope, bearing both San Francisco and Springfield postmarks, had been sent to two other addresses—one of which incorrectly identified me as working at the University of Massachusetts—before reaching me at Hampshire.

It contained the usual pseudo-scientific Holocaust denial material, charging that eyewitness and subsequent accounts of the extermination process and sundry atrocities were implausible fabrications:

Two things were noteworthy:

1) I evidently earned a place on this mailing list by virtue of teaching a course on antisemitism. NB: The official one-paragraph catalogue entry did not even mention the Holocaust by name. It did, however, include a reference to the contemporary Middle East. (The longer description of the course, which discussed both in a nuanced manner, was not even posted at the time.)

2) Unlike most such screeds, this one was written from a pseudo-left-wing perspective, for it connects US denazification efforts and purported disinformation with anti-communism and denounces the Holocaust as "a late-colonialist myth" whose only purpose in to justify Israeli expansionism and brutality:

It never occurred to me that, by teaching about the undeniable existence of an extermination facility at Treblinka more than half a century ago, I might harm someone on the other side of the globe today. Then again: obviously, these are crude ravings; in that sense, they are insignificant.

What is not as obvious but in fact highly significant is that the anti-Israel rationale embodied in this form of Holocaust denial merely lies at the extreme end of a broad continuum of discourse—but a continuum nonetheless—that stretches well into the realm of respectability. Mind you, not all manifestations of the discourse are necessarily antisemitic. However, the extent to which this particular discourse of anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel recapitulates or echoes classic antisemitic themes should give us pause. Designing and teaching my new course has provided a welcome opportunity to think through some of these issues. I’ll try just to sketch the rough parameters of the continuum here.

What unites the deniers and others on the fringe with many mainstream critics of Israel is the disturbing and increasing tendency to introduce references to the Holocaust into debate primarily in order to denounce the existence or actions of the state. There are several basic arguments, each of which has “hard” and “soft” variants.

Certainly, no right-thinking person would accept the hate-mailer’s claim that Zionists fabricated the story of the Holocaust in order to obtain their state. However, many otherwise decent and rational people readily assent to one of several arguments to the effect that Israel and its supporters illegitimately or excessively invoke the Holocaust in order to enrich the state, justify its policies, or shield it from criticism. The harder variants see this practice as deliberate or even quasi-conspiratorial in nature, whereas some of the softer ones regard it as an understandable but unacceptable reaction to historical trauma. By often charging that there is an attempt to silence debate, however, both may end up echoing classic antisemitic tropes regarding Jewish “power” and influence over government and media.

Whereas likening Israelis to Nazis was a practice once largely confined to the cruder “anti-Zionist” propaganda of the USSR and its clients, that taboo has vanished in the past two decades (just try googling "Zionazi" for a start). Even many people close to the mainstream no longer scruple at the comparison, which European, British, and US government bodies now include under definitions of potentially antisemitic discourse. Because the analogy can still generate controversy, however, some groups avoid it out of principle or pragmatism. Rather than invoking the Nazis, they speak of “ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid," which deliver almost as much anti-racist moral firepower, but lower risk of provocation and unintended injury to the user. The softest version is the claim that Israelis have failed to learn the “true” lessons of the Holocaust and cannot see that they have increasingly, although perhaps inadvertently, come to resemble their former oppressors. They, “of all people," we are told—apparently with sympathetic regret, but in fact with condescension—"should know better.” This reproach in fact recapitulates the venerable Christian anti-Judaic trope of Jewish "blindness" to the truth of their own history and tradition. As a result, this version is equally popular in the churches and among postmodern types who relish "irony."

Perhaps the newest argument involves a sort of buyer’s remorse that I have referred to as "the new discourse of regret": the idea that the world made a fateful mistake in creating the State of Israel. It is actually the most insidious argument because, even as it uniquely delegitimizes a member state of the United Nations, it appears to be the most humane and non-judgmental: we’re all victims. It begins by acknowledging that the shameful tradition of European antisemitism and world passivity in the face of Nazism led to the tragedy of the Holocaust. When the world then nobly sought to make amends by creating a Jewish state, it in fact acted precipitously and overcompensated for its own guilt, failing to recognize that it was doing an injustice to the Arabs. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around in this model: tragically, the Jews were in fact victimized twice, first by suffering genocide at the hands of the Nazis and then by being given a state that was doubly cursed because it both turned them into oppressors and thereby failed to bring them the promised permanent freedom from violence and hatred. The Palestinians are then the chief—and NB: only entirely blameless—victims, being forced simply to pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. And as for the Europeans and other outsiders, even they are in some sense really just victims of their own excess of empathy and good intentions. Now they can congratulate themselves on having seen the error of their ways, so that they are free both to wallow in their guilt and to revel in their new-found rectitude. It all sounds perfectly plausible and uplifting. I almost shed a tear myself.

None of this is to deny the legitimacy of even harsh criticism directed against Israel. The aforementioned studies on contemporary antisemitism all make that clear.

The point, rather, is that this is all bad history as well as bad politics. It manages to make several terrible mistakes at once.

• It trivializes the Holocaust by focusing exclusively (and superficially, at that) on its presumed consequences in isolation from its course and causes.

• Instrumentalizing the Holocaust in this manner—above and beyond the fact that this is precisely the mistake of which critics accuse Israel—thereby risks losing any real grasp of both the particular and the universal significance of the catastrophe, which must be understood as a properly historical phenomenon in its own right.

• The fact that the Holocaust, of all things, is now used so frequently as a club with which to beat the Jewish state should set off alarm bells. It betokens a casting off of inhibitions and thus erodes the barrier against open antisemitism.

• The association between the Holocaust and the creation of Israel—or better: Palestine Partition, for we should remind ourselves that the actual UN vote foresaw creation of two states, Arab and Jewish—was genuine, but complex: antisemitism, Zionism, Arab nationalism. and the “question of Palestine” all existed well before 1947. To reduce the tragic Arab-Israeli conflict to a botched quick fix of a mess arising from the Holocaust is to distort the past in ways that make solving the problems of the present all the more difficult.

BDS on Campus: A Generation of Giants Unleashes its Frightful Onslaught

Evidently I spoke too soon when I gently suggested that the recent BDS conference at Hampshire this past weekend had been a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

When I unsuspectingly arrived on campus on Monday, I was taken aback to see that these signs had sprouted, like dragon's teeth, overnight:

It was of course with no little trepidation that I therefore made my way from the parking lot to my office in Franklin Patterson Hall, one of the sturdiest buildings on campus, built of brick and concrete. To my relief, the structure was standing, exactly as it had been on Friday afternoon.

That's a true story—and an allegory.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Comparative Quackery: The Joke is on BDS

Sometimes the irony is so delicious that one just has to believe a witty higher power is directing our affairs here on earth. How else to explain the sight that greeted me on Friday afternoon, just as the vaunted national conference of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement was getting underway?

Q: What’s the difference between BDS and homeopathy?

A: Not much, actually. Both are frauds that are led by scoundrels, attract the naïve, and have yet to produce any verifiable result, much less, the promised benefit for suffering humanity.
* * *

The bad news:
• It’s embarrassing that my college, which takes justifiable pride in its rigorous and innovative science pedagogy, could open its facilities to a pseudo-scientific movement that has absolutely no clinical validity.

• It’s embarrassing that my college, which purports to "emphasize comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary approaches and encourage critical reflection from multiple perspectives," could host an event whose organizers display such an abysmally oversimplified view of history (compare with this far more nuanced version) and indeed disdain both critical reflection on their own enterprise and the multiple perspectives that others could offer in dialogue.
The good news:
1) The College as an institution does not support either fraud. It rents out its space to outside groups who will pay the fee, and it allows campus organizations to hold their own events.
2) No one takes this stuff seriously anyway.

* * *
Addendum: and just in case that humiliatingly ludicrous SJP statement is ever taken down, I include here a screen shot:

Whither BDS: A generation of giants—or delusions of grandeur?

The great moment has finally arrived. The gestation period is over.

Break out the cigars.

Just over nine months have passed since the BDS movement triumphantly announced its penetration of the power structures of Hampshire College. As we indicated at the outset and others soon realized, this was in fact idle and impotent boasting rather than date rape (though each scenario is unappetizing in its way; that should tell you something).

Still, let’s take them at their word. Assuming we really can accept paternity (a big "if"), just what did these cocky folks produce?

The elder external boosters were once again premature in shooting off the news of the colossal achievement: in this case, the birth of a mighty movement led by “A new generation of giants."

Well, okay, if you say so. But is there some yardstick by which we measure "giant"? Let's take a look at the prodigious progeny.

Much of the conference consisted (aside from a few pep-rally-type events) of, well, reports of various local efforts, without, well, any particular effects. It further consisted in promoting a mixture of Quixotic master goals (make universities and monster academic pension fund CREF divest; this, although the effort failed at Hampshire, which has practically no endowment at stake) and (more sub rosa) small-scale guerilla actions that fall somewhere between the juvenile and the illegal: e.g. “de-shelve” Israeli products ([1] [2]) in stores. Not exactly the stuff of which Che Guevara was made.

On second thought, the miserable little creature—weak, helpless, and crying out incoherently—really does resemble its putative parent.

From premature climax to anticlimax: that pretty much sums it up.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

22 November: St. Cecilia's Day

For most of us in America, November 22 is the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and that's it, and that's understandable. It was an overwhelming event. It was one of those proverbial moments at which everyone of a certain age can remember exactly where he or she was when the news arrived. It's true even for those of us who, like me, were only small children at the time.

However, I also have another November 22 memory from my—I was going to say, "mature," but as I have yet to reach that state in either the literal or the figurative sense, let me correct that to—"college" years. My music teacher had put me in touch with some other adult students of his—young professionals, all more than half a generation older than I was—who were interested in forming a string quartet of like-minded but not excessively accomplished amateurs. One of them, a generous businessman, with a spectacular antique violin, an elegant house, and a refined aesthetic sense, decided to revive the Baroque tradition of the Saint Cecilia's Day festival.

Because she was known, thanks to a rather slim strand of legend (but wherein does tradition otherwise consist?) as the patron saint of music, it became the custom in England to celebrate her saint's day—November 22—with concerts and other festivities. The two pieces written for the occasion by Purcell

and that by Händel

are now well known. Our local festivities were restricted to a small circle, but we valued it all the more. Our host provided the food and drink. His only requirement was that all the guests perform a work of music in the manner of their choosing, as best they could—and "leave their diffidence at home." All were welcome, amateur and professional alike, but no one could judge, and no one could apologize. It was a fine model of open-minded and egalitarian interaction, and I often have occasion to remember it in other contexts.